My following article is published today in the Melbourne Age:
About 100 Chinese citizens gathered outside Google’s Beijing office this week to sing the popular tune Grass Mud Horse. They paid their respects to the web giant after it announced the closure of its censored Chinese search engine and redirected users to a Hong Kong-based counterpart. The song signifies resistance to authoritarianism and roughly translates as “Screw Your Mother”.
Police soon broke up the vigil but the event indicated a small but significant shift in public opinion towards opposing internet censorship in the world’s biggest online market (384 million and counting).
There’s hardly revolution in the streets, but Google’s departure has left many Chinese upset and more aware than ever of their country’s repressive policies towards free speech. “The Google China incident”, according to friends there, has caused some normally apolitical users to question why their leaders are isolating them from the world.
Although the majority of Chinese netizens don’t engage in political activities online – preferring to download movies and music and chat with friends – a growing number resent being told what they can’t view by Beijing authorities. An estimated 400,000 people access a virtual private network that allows the ”great firewall” to be circumvented.
But the attitude of Chinese netizens is decidedly mixed (with most users viewing home-grown content with a nationalist bent). During research in China for my book, The Blogging Revolution, I found occasional backing for some kind of government filtering. The constant refrain was to “protect children” from “pornography”, a term that refers to both sexual and political content.
A 2008 collaboration between the Pew Internet and American Life Project and a group of respected Chinese academics found that nearly 85 per cent of those polled said they wanted the government to control the web.
Google’s decision has the potential to unleash forces in the communist nation that authorities have spent years trying to suppress. Beijing has cleverly allowed a growing amount of online venting towards corrupt officials and wayward pollution, but there are strict limits to debate.
Although the People’s Daily accused Google of playing God and forcing its “values” on the Chinese people, a democratic alternative to Beijing’s web-based dictatorship will be viable only if developed by the Chinese people. Google can simply provide a spark.
It’s certainly far too early to determine the real reason behind Google’s move. A sudden concern for human rights and freedom of speech is possible, but Foreign Policy’s Evgeny Morozov suggests a more cynical strategy: “Google was in need of some positive PR to correct its worsening image (especially in Europe, where concerns about privacy are mounting on a daily basis). Google.cn is the goat that would be sacrificed, for it will generate most positive headlines and may not result in devastating losses to Google’s business (Google.cn holds roughly 30 per cent of the Chinese market).”
He may be right, though I suspect Google’s decision was also due to its largely stagnant commercial growth against far savvier and more ethically versatile competitors. Like any multinational business, human rights concerns are rarely a leading consideration. This is despite Google co-founder Sergey Brin urging the Obama administration this week to put a “high priority” on fighting Chinese web blocking.
One undoubted benefit of Google’s self-immolation in China will be a closer appraisal of internet censorship across the globe. In another case, in Thailand, YouTube has agreed to block videos insulting the revered king.
Recently, Google objected to the Australian government’s request that they ”voluntarily” censor YouTube videos in accordance with refused classification rules. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy curiously promoted Google’s censorship in China and Thailand as reasons why the company should apply the same rules here. It’s hard to fathom how using these examples fits with Australia’s democratic tradition.
Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, said this week that, over time, “it is good for our business to push for free expression”. He clearly wasn’t just talking about China.
Western-style democracy is not wanted in China, but Google’s stunning move guarantees a robust online debate about what netizens aren’t being told.
Antony Loewenstein’s book The Blogging Revolution is published by Melbourne University Press.